Graduate Theological Union

In Memoriam: Robert N. Bellah

Robert BellahThe Graduate Theological Union lost a great friend and colleague on July 31 with the death of Robert N. Bellah (1927-2013), who was the Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Although his graduate studies focused on Japanese religions, Professor Bellah was best known for his scholarship on the religious aspects of American culture.  Books such as Beyond Belief (1970) and The Broken Covenant (1975), along with co-authored volumes Habits of the Heart (1985), and The Good Society (1991), have shaped not only the discipline of sociology but also the fields of ethics, spirituality, and comparative theology. His last book, Religion in Human Evolution (2011), studied the emergence of religion in human cultures from the Big Bang to the first millennium B.C.E. in Israel, Greece, China, and India.

Several generations of GTU students benefited from the opportunity to study with this preeminent sociologist of religion who served as “outside reader” on more GTU dissertation committees than any other scholar.  He also collaborated with GTU faculty colleagues on numerous research and publication projects including those sponsored by the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements, the Center for Hermeneutical Studies, and the Center for Ethics and Social Policy.

The recipient of honorary degrees from both the GTU (1998) and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (1987), Professor Bellah’s frequent lectures at the GTU often drew capacity crowds. His last public presentation on campus was in February 2012 when he gave the Surjit Singh Lecture on Comparative Religious Thought and Culture on the topic “Can Religion Survive the Challenge of Evolution?” (audio and transcript available at In his introductory remarks on that occasion, he explained that collaboration with theological educators had been a major factor in his decision to move from Harvard to UC Berkeley in 1967: “I would not have come to Berkeley without the GTU.”

Professor Bellah was both a distinguished scholar and a devout Christian. His deep commitment to the practice of faith that makes a difference in the world was evident in a sermon he preached in 2009 at his local parish, All Souls Episcopal Church in Berkeley:

We are not alone, isolated atoms fighting each other for survival, though much in our culture constantly teaches us that that is the truth of the human condition.  If we know that we are really members of one body, that we need and are needed by each other, then our whole way of being in the world will change, and perhaps we can in the church, which seems to many so marginal, serve as models for others, for the troubled nation and world in which we live.

A memorial service is planned for 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 20, at All Souls Episcopal Church, 2220 Cedar Street, in Berkeley.


Obituary from UC Berkeley:

Remembrances from former GTU faculty: